The Rich Folk Club That Got Thousands Killed
Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and other Pittsburgh magnates bought the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam that formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, in 1880. Originally built by the Commonwealth to service a canal system, the dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a private resort for the wealthy based around the dam’s lake and shoreline. The club opened in 1881, and its well-heeled members mingled in its clubhouse and their cottages around the lake as they enjoyed the pleasures of nature.
The club lowered the dam to accommodate a road. To make sure that that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway – a structure that allows controlled release of water from a dam. However, the screen did not just stop fish from leaving the dam: it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was especially bad because when the dam was built, it had a system of relief pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. That system was sold as scrap metal, and never replaced. Between that and the clogged spillway, there was no way to release water in case of an emergency. Such an emergency occurred on May 31st, 1889, and it killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood, after the chief town struck by the disaster.